SA cops' culture of racist violence exposed

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SA cops' culture of racist violence exposed

By Norm Dixon

Television footage has graphically illustrated how little the culture of racist violence and lawlessness within the South African Police Service (SAPS) has changed as South Africa's second democratic general election approaches.

A BBC television documentary, screened in Britain on April 19, showed members of the elite Brixton "flying squad" police unit in Johannesburg display, in the words of Police Commissioner George Fivaz, "a shocking disregard for basic human rights".

As two suspected car thieves were lying prone on the ground with their hands cuffed, police kicked them in the face and had a police dog bite them. A cigarette was stubbed out on one detainee's head, and he was then assaulted repeatedly with a rifle butt. The suspects were later released without charge.

In another chilling scene, two men being chased by police were severely injured when they lost control of their car. The cops dragged the unconscious men from the car and proceeded to kick and hit one of them with their rifle butts. He later died.

Eight police officers — five whites and three blacks — were suspended following the shocking footage. The acts occurred three months earlier.

A government official defended the brutality as the result of stress police suffer "in a society riddled with gun-toting criminals".

The footage underscores the fact that the vast majority of police — especially at the higher levels of command — loyally served the racist National Party (NP) apartheid regime. Murder, torture and frame-ups were part of police routine.

Some idea of how violent and corrupt the SAPS remains can be gleaned from the statistics. Between 1995 and 1998, the SAPS paid out more than 65 million rand ($11 million) compensation for acts of unlawful arrest, death, assault, disability and damage to property. About 27,000 complaints have been lodged against the SAPS since 1996, when the Independent Complaints Directorate was established.

According to statistics released by the ICD in June, 889 people died in police custody or as a result of police action between January and May 1998. Most deaths occurred in Gauteng province, with 322. In KwaZulu-Natal, 167 died and 145 in the Western Cape. Police were killed or injured in only 6% of the incidents in which a suspect was killed; 91% of those who died in police custody were black.

Cops are three times more likely to commit a crime than the average South African. In 1997, there were 1212 convictions of serving officers, and in the first half of 1998 there were more than 400 convictions.

The campaign for the June 2 general election has been marked by every party making law and order a central plank. In some political circles, the thugs caught on tape are being touted as heroes. One of the NP's election slogans is "Hang the killers! Hang the rapists!". Stanley Mogoba, president of the Pan Africanist Congress, suggested earlier this year that criminals' limbs should be amputated.

The ruling African National Congress is also campaigning on crime, although not in as blood-curdling a manner as some of its rivals. According to ANC leader Thabo Mbeki's spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, the new ANC government will clamp down on "permissiveness, lawlessness and disorder" and restore "a sense of discipline".